UK Roundup 22/09/09

23 09 2009

Two of the usual suspects Derren Brown and Richard Dawkins have been in the UK news recently, Brown for his new TV show, and Dawkins due to his support for libel law reform.

‘Mentalist’, anti-psychic and all-round showman Brown has a new series that apparently has been under development ‘for over a year’ and was promising all sorts of exciting new tricks. Two shows in and the results have been less than impressive.

Brown - You Will Buy My Used Car.

Must Remember To Buy Aspirin


For his first heavily hyped episode Brown promised to predict the national lottery numbers on live TV. Unfortunately his definition of ‘predicting’ and mine seem to differ somewhat. Mine involves revealing the numbers before seeing the draw, whereas his involved picking some unseen numbers, muttering something about the BBC not allowing him to reveal them, and then revealing them after the draw, at which point they were shown to be correct to the surprise of absolutely no-one. Not only was this all a bit of a swizz, but Brown’s follow-up programme in which he promised to reveal how he had done it was a damp squib. Disappointingly, given his previously laudable anti-mumbo jumbo leanings, he chose to present a couple of scenarios to explain himself and let the viewers choose. Option one was the completely ludicrous suggestion that a group of volunteers had somehow used ‘automatic writing’ to average out the numbers using a theory called ‘the wisdom of crowds’. Total hogwash and pretty close to invoking psychic ability in my book. Option two was that he had somehow rigged the lottery draw – more believable but also pretty much out of the question. General consensus seems to point to some sort of split-screen trick in which the initial balls were switched out with the correct numbers after the draw.

The second show was even worse. Brown claimed that he would, gasp, ‘control the nation’ by means of a mysterious subliminal film. Basically it was nothing more than your bog standard stage hypnotist where some people humour the entertainer by eating an onion or whatever, except in this case all they had to do was to pretend not to be able to get out of their chairs. Some viewers played the game by phoning in to report they were stuck, until released by a special ‘relaxing’ blue film segment shown by Brown.

For all his showman bluster I’m afraid this series just hasn’t done it for Brown so far – his stunts are just too easy to rig for a TV audience (the possibility of multiple takes etc) and waffle about mysterious theories and automatic writing are a definite step in the wrong direction. However he still portrays himself as an illusionist rather than a psychic, so perhaps he’ll pull something a bit more interesting out of the bag later.

Dawkins, meanwhile, has been campaigning to change the English libel laws which he says are biased towards the plaintiff. He has the support of England’s third party the Liberal Democrats (unfortunately numerically pretty much the equivalent of having the staunch support of ACT). Dawkins was quoted as saying that due to the current state of the law, it was very hard to publicly criticise homoeopaths and the like for fear of being sued (although Ben Goldacre seems to have done a pretty good job in his great book ‘Bad Science’). Another doctor, Simon Singh is currently fighting a case where he is being sued for suggesting chiropractors might be not quite as sincere as they make out. This is seen as a very important case in determining how far scientists and others can go in their criticism. Although any changes in the law are a long way off, any groundswell of support or general coverage of the issue is most welcome.

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UK Public 2 – 0 Homeopaths

4 06 2009

I’ve recently come across a couple of cases here in England in which homeopathy supporters have had to make public and embarrassing climbdowns, a Good Thing in my book. The first is from last year but may not have received much coverage in NZ.

Neal’s Yard Remedies is a fairly large chain of stores selling “organic skin and body care and natural remedies” – they have 52 outlets worldwide and sell their products in many more including some of the UK’s biggest pharmacists. They are also, unsurprisingly, pretty keen on homeopathy. However perhaps not quite so keen as they used to be.

Recently it came to light that they were selling a couple of homeopathic remedies advertised as being malarial prophylactics. Now it’s one thing to claim homeopathy might cure your hay fever or stop dandruff, but it’s quite another to claim it will stop you getting malaria. Every year malaria kills over a million people and up to 500 million people are affected by it. That’s a pretty serious disease. The BBC’s ‘Inside Out’ programme took it upon themselves to investigate why Neal’s Yard were able to sell such products – the clip is below.

The best bit is at around 5 minutes in, where Susan Curtis, Neal’s Yard’s medicine director tries to justify the chain selling the anti-malaria remedies. Her reasoning is akin to the episode of The Simpsons where Lisa convinces Homer to buy a rock that wards off bears (or possibly tigers, something with big teeth and claws anyway). ‘How do I know it works’ asks Homer? ‘Well, you don’t see any bears around here do you’? Sold!

Curtis claiming that the remedies work because she used them when she went to India and didn’t get malaria is priceless. She couldn’t even say whether she was bitten by a malarial mosquito – then gets the hump and walks out of the interview. Not much of an advocate for Neal’s Yard. As a side note I’ve just been in India for six months, took absolutely no anti-malarial medication at all (perhaps foolishly) and also didn’t get malaria. I’m not sure what Curtis would make of that.

The upshot? Neal’s Yard were found to be acting illegally and were forced to remove the two remedies from their shelves, although scarily they had been available for the last twenty years!

The second case involved The University of Westminster in London being forced to scrap it’s BSc degree in Homeopathy. Now I was fairly amazed they even offered such a course but apparently they did, partly justifying it by claiming a third of teaching involved detailed biomedical studies. It attracted a fair amount of flak from others in the academic world but not enough for the course to be stopped. In fact what killed it off finally was the encouraging fact they just couldn’t get enough students signed up to justify running it. Reason for optimism indeed!